Direct talks with Kim Jong Un desirable

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

DESPITE its small size and low level of economic success, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) — commonly known as North Korea — has surprised its neighbours by launching an inter-continental ballistic missile with success. In such matters, there is an acceleration of the pace of success with the crossing of each stage, and developing lift and guidance capacity to a level that gives the projectile the potential of travelling 4300 kilometres is impressive. Such a leapfrogging of technology is not possible unless there exists within North Korea a dedicated group of rocket scientists fully committed to developing a missile system that has the potential of reaching the country that North Korea considers its biggest threat, which is the United States.
Given that such a system is next to useless unless mated with an array of nuclear warheads, it is certain that such devices must be under development in the DPRK, and are likely to be tested soon. As North Korea has walked away from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, it is stretching the concept of international law to accuse Pyongyang of violating laws that it is not treaty bound to follow. Of course, whatever be the theoretical versions of international law that get taught in classrooms, the reality is that international law is what the Big Powers say it is, especially the United States and now China as well, in a context where Beijing has evolved as the other superpower.
Over time, India and Russia are likely to join that list, although both are far away from that exalted status at the present. North Korea is not in that league, but despite its small size, the country has demonstrated an independence of spirit under the leadership of the Kim family. Because three generations of this family have been in control of North Korea since the close of the 1940s, it is possible that much of the decision-making level of DPRK society accept them as the natural bosses of the country. In other words, only the Kim family will be able to keep the ruling party in North Korea united and functional and no individual outside the clan. This is analogous to the Congress Party membership overwhelmingly regarding only a member of the Nehru family as being eligible to lead the party.
In 1969, Indira Gandhi eliminated much of the leadership of the party and replaced them with her loyalists, and when a faction of these such as A K Antony and Devaraj Urs revolted in 1978, the party split once more, this time with Indira Gandhi in full control, much as she was during 1975-77, when the country was functioning on the basis of Emergency laws. These laws were put into force because of the perception in Indira Gandhi’s mind that she would soon lose her job as Prime Minister unless normal democratic processes were set aside, as indeed they were during the Emergency. After Indira Gandhi passed away in 1984 through assassination, the leadership went to eldest son Rajiv (younger son Sanjay had died in an aeroplane crash in 1980,otherwise he would have taken over).
After Rajiv’s death in 1991, Sonia Gandhi chose P V Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, but soon was persuaded to oppose him in multiple ways, thereby weakening the Congress Party enough for it to be defeated in the 1996 polls. The split in the Congress Party caused by loyalists of Sonia Gandhi led to the boost in the fortunes of the BJP that finally brought the party to power in 1998 after having emerged as the single largest party in 1996. Whatever be the reason, it remains a fact that the BJP’s first Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee, is close to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and always showed her great consideration while Prime Minister (1998-2004).
Since 1997, Sonia Gandhi has been both the real as well as the formal leader of the Congress Party, and if she should step aside, it will be her son Rahul ( or daughter Priyanka, or both) who will succeed her. Indeed, had Sonia Gandhi replaced Manmohan Singh with son Rahul in the Prime Minister’s seat in 2011, when Manmohan Singh had become hopelessly discredited politically, the Congress Party tally would have been much higher than the 44 Lok Sabha (Lower House) seats in won in 2014. However, since then, Rahul Gandhi has lost much of the goodwill and charisma he had until a few years ago, and unless he vastly improves his performance in the time remaining till the 2019 elections, the Congress Party is likely to fare equally if not more poorly in that context, especially because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is far and away the most significant leader in India, much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were in their time. However, perhaps because of the different political system in North Korea, the Kim family still seems fully in control over North Korea.
The present Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, has been called various unflattering things by observers based in Europe and the US who know him not at all. However, it must be admitted that despite his youth, Kim Jong Un has shown success in ensuring the development of lethal weaponry. Indeed, North Korea has become a core concern of China, the US and Japan, besides some other countries. So long as Kim is in charge, the North Koreans are likely to continue the development of nuclear and missile systems. Whatever they may say or want, world leaders will need to engage with Kim Jong Un rather than keep away from him if there is to be any result-oriented dialogue on North Korea. US President Donald Trump was right in wanting this to happen, although these days, he seems to have changed his views on this as on other issues as a consequence of Beltway pressure.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
Email: mgnalapat@gmail.com